Local Comes To The Midwest

The Lempert Report
March 18, 2016

For many Midwesterners eating local produce is difficult

For many Midwesterners eating local produce is difficult - a lot more difficult than those living in more varied crop ag states like California, Texas, Florida to name just a few. The Midwest supermarkets are stocked with imports from Mexico, Peru and even China. So what’s a shopper to do that wants local – for the taste, nutritionals and affordable prices?

Dawn Thilmany, Professor of Ag Economics at Colorado State University has some answers. She says that "It might actually, energy-wise, make more sense to ship from faraway distances, because we do have a lot of energy-efficient ways to ship, including trains, barges and such," But cut out those carbon-rich heat sources, growing local greens in greenhouses starts to make sense. And that is just what is happening. Geothermal greenhouses high on the Nebraska plains house a citrus grove with trees holding up a canopy of lemons, grapefruit-sized oranges, green figs and bunches of grapes. The designer, a former mail carrier and farmer, Russ Finch designed the structure and calls it the Greenhouse in the Snow.

The greenhouse design is a take on a walipini, or pit greenhouse. The floor is dug down, 4 feet below the surface. The roof is slanted toward the south to catch as much sun as possible. During the day it can reach well into the 80s inside the greenhouse, but at night the temperature plummets. That's when it draws on geothermal heat; warm air is taken from perforated plastic tubing that is buried underground. The plastic tubes go out one end of the greenhouse and run a loop to the opposite end. A single fan circulates air through those tubes. As the air moves through, Finch says it picks up enough heat from the soil to keep his oranges out of danger.

The greenhouse uses very little energy, almost entirely pushing fossil fuels out of the picture, and keeping energy costs down to about $1 a day.  Perhaps a sustainable future, and local produce for Midwesterners are not that far off after all.